By Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild
The Book of Deuteronomy sets out the exemplar of how a king should behave: We read that a king should be one of their own people, not a stranger. They should not keep many horses, should not send people back to Egypt, should not have many wives nor amass material possessions to excess. And the king should have a copy of the Torah written for him, which will stay with him at all times and which he will read throughout his life, “so that he may learn to revere God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left..” (Deut 17:14-20)
The Torah recognises the possibilities of abuse of power and sets limits to the monarchy, making clear that while the king may be the leader of the people, they are still the subject of God. The directive to “not send the people back to Egypt” can be understood as not putting the people back into the servitude from which God had freed them, or maybe that Egyptian sovereigns perceived themselves to be divine, whereas Hebrew kings were categorically human, with their flaws documented.
Biblical kings often behaved as if they – not God – were the most important. So even King David’s self-centredness is recorded, his callous behaviour around Batsheva, his illegal census taking, designed to show his own military power. There is no such thing as a completely trustable sovereign, the bible seems to be telling us.
Yet the kings of Israel did have an important role in history, evolving a different kind of leadership from that of the Judges who preceded them. Each of the Judges were individuals whose personality drove them. Each represented not the whole people, but themselves and their tribes. With monarchy something different was established – the unity of the people in a nation-state. The sovereign was the leader of the whole, and the existence of a separate priesthood meant that the sovereign’s power was limited to the political arena, the priests regulating the religious one. With the added phenomenon of prophets arising to speak truth to power, the biblical world balanced communal leadership between three distinct roles.
What can a modern king learn from the bible? Besides the many examples of what not to do, Torah reminds us of the ideal. Someone of the people who understands them, who does not set themselves apart or amass wealth or power, who allows the people their freedoms. A person who reviews God’s word and follows God’s will. Monarch, Priest, or Politician, it remains the ideal for all.
Sylvia Rothschild has been a Reform community rabbi in south London for 30 years